IN 1845, A pompous British explorer ventured into the African interior fired with missionary zeal. Disgusted by the centuries-old Saharan slave trade, James Richardson would single-handedly put an end to it and carve a name for himself in the annals of desert exploration. Or so he thought. The reality proved more troublesome. Despite his best efforts, Saharan slavers continued buying, selling, beating, starving and raping their miserable charges, and Richardson, returning to the desert for a second expedition, died of fever at Ungurutuwa, six days' march from Kukawa, west of Lake Chad. So much for good intentions. He did at least leave something for posterity. His Travels in the Great Desert Sahara in the Years 1845 and 1846 is an extended harrumph against the slave trade, British politicians, the Americans, fellow explorers, pretty much anyone in fact. In one of my favourite passages Richardson indulges in a spot of French-bashing: 'I'll defy any traveller to write fairly and justly upon the late history of North Africa, without filling his pages with bona fide and well-founded abuse of the French and their works in this part of the world,' he fulminated. 'They emphatically stink throughout Africa.'
Fergus Fleming's latest exploration history shows just how awful they smelt. It relates the story of France's piecemeal conquest of North Africa, orchestrated, if not with precision and care, then with numerous examples of calculated brutality intended to terrorise the natives. Villages were burnt and their inhabitants butchered, asphyxiated in